John Thornton and a more intelligent capitalism

John Thornton -- the good capitalist

John Thornton -- the good capitalist

I readily admit that the romance is my favorite part of North and South, but I'm also passionate about Elizabeth Gaskell's vision of a more humanitarian capitalism. The softening of the stern Milton master is one of the most beautiful developments of the story. And today, as the world continues to search for the proper role of capitalism in human governments, John Thornton's example offers a ray of hope that society can incorporate humanitarian values into the sphere of commerce and industry.

At the same time that Gaskell was writing fictionalized accounts of contemporary life, Karl Marx was issuing forth his anti-capitalist works. The misery of the lower classes in this early industrial period is well documented. With few regulations to protect them and no voting rights, the poor were at the mercy of those in positions of power. As industrialism swept more people into its workings, Gaskell's novel seems to be asking: what is capitalism's role in humanity's progress? The answer she provides can be found as we watch Thornton slowly evolve his stance as a powerful businessman with far-reaching influence.

When we first meet Thornton, he is an autocrat who is fully involved in pursuing productive excellence and efficiency. He believes the only moral duty to his employees (beyond his regular honesty in all his dealings) is to embody the model of self-control and diligence that has made his own business successful. He takes little or no account of workers' concerns and resists involving himself any further in his workers' lives, claiming that it would be an interference of their independence. 

It is Thornton's initial detachment from his employees that fosters the distrust, ignorance, and hatred that is destined to be destructive. 

The autocratic ruler of Marlborough Mills

The autocratic ruler of Marlborough Mills

Margaret's consistent demand that he consider a deeper moral obligation to the leagues of men under his employ slowly opens Thornton's consciousness to broader possibilities. And through his contact with Higgins, he creates a new relationship with his workers -- a relationship that is on more equal footing, where no one side has all the right answers. In an atmosphere of basic respect where differing parties can regularly interact and communicate with each other, animosity is deflated and friendships are born. (It's a sweet yet astonishing bonus for the tight-lipped, reclusive manager that he finds in Higgins a personal friend!)

It may be easy to dismiss Thornton's eventual success with his workers as happy fiction, but I believe that in Thornton's establishment of a workers' kitchen at Marlborough Mills, we can distinguish the elements required for a practical model of a kinder, gentler capitalism. It is a living example of how a working blend of business principles and humanitarian concepts might take shape.

In the natural course of his developing friendship with Higgins, Thornton becomes aware that the men don't often eat well. It is Thornton's idea to purchase food in bulk in order to supply the workers an affordable meal. But this is not, as Thornton later makes clear to Mr. Bell (and again to Mr. Colthurst of the book), a charity effort on his part. Thornton delegates the task of working out the details of setting up and running a kitchen largely to the men. It's a collaborative endeavor that Thornton invests in to improve the well-being of his workers. The end result is a win-win situation. Thornton's men are comparatively better workers for being fortified with decent food, and the men are offered an affordable and convenient meal at noontime. Both sides participate, both benefit.

Thornton mingles with his workers.

Thornton mingles with his workers.

Thornton enjoys this expanded model of a humanitarian business so much that he refuses to take work without this new worldview in mind. He declines work as a partner with Hamper's son, who he knows as a vain, merciless capitalist who seeks only personal profit. Thornton is eager to expand his concept of success, purpose, and progress beyond the scope of mere monetary gain. He has a driving desire to explore how lives might be improved in the course of operating a capital enterprise.

Thornton's model of working with his men -- knowing many of them by name, seeing some them occasionally at Higgins' home -- builds the human relationships that support his business when Marlborough Mills begins to decline. The workers take it upon themselves to finish work without pay. The loyalty and respect Thornton has earned increases his business's chances to succeed when business profits are down.

And when Marlborough Mills closes its doors, the men sign a round-robin to say that they will come work for Thornton again if he ever manages another capital enterprise. Thornton's humility and honesty has created great respect among his colleagues. His honest and earnest cooperation and collaboration with his employees has earned him the trust and loyalty of his workers. And it is this relationship of mutual trust and respect that will allow Thornton to re-open his doors and begin again the adventure of finding ways to improve the lives of others while creating a successful business.

In sum, a more intelligent capitalism takes far more than mere profit and statistical productivity into account. If the essential purpose of any business is to provide goods and services to improve the lives of fellow beings, then why should the purpose be limited to customers and investors? Isn't it also essential to improve the lives of the employees who make the enterprise function? The cost of not caring for your workers can be high -- as Thornton discovered in the strike that eventually undermined the economic stability of the mill. 

A truly wise capitalist will take care to remember that his business involves meeting the concerns of humanity at every level of operation. A disregard of human concerns eventually creates problems that are destructive to the whole of society. And that kind of heartless capitalism can never be considered good or intelligent, since it leaves out the most important part of being alive -- having a heart.

Thornton and Darcy in the Great War Era

If you love John Thornton, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Downton Abbey -- there's a new novel that includes something of all three! (And I'm happy to say that it's getting fabulous reviews at Amazon!)  

Ginger Monette, a fellow Thornton lover, has written a Darcy and Elizabeth tale set during the tumultuous Great War in England. John Thornton makes an appearance in the story, and -- better yet -- will be the hero of a future book in the series, Thornton's Hope.

If you're not intrigued yet, then you should be impressed with Ginger's dedication and passion for historical accuracy. She studied World War I six days a week for nine months before writing her novels! 

I hope you'll enjoy my interview with Ginger, as I ask her about her connection with Gaskell's John Thornton:


Tell us how and when you fell in love with John Thornton.  Is your Thornton love more recent compared to your devotion to Darcy/Austen?

A friend introduced me to Pride & Prejudice with Matthew Macfadyen, and that sparked my love of period drama. Shortly thereafter, I learned of the existence of the North & South mini-series. But I saved it as a treat to myself when our family was on vacation at the beach and I could watch the whole thing in one stretch. And boy, I was not disappointed! I was mesmerized from the beginning. John Thornton was the most swoon-worthy character I'd ever encountered.

My heart went out to the brooding man who had worked so hard to elevate himself from his humble beginnings. He was a man of principle and character who believed that he could achieve anything with hard work—except win the hand of Margaret Hale. Ah! The poor man!

Have you read Gaskell's "North and South" and, if so, what did you love about it? (Or, what did you love about the mini-series?)

After I had watched the mini-series numerous times, I delved into the novel. I enjoyed it, but not as much as the movie adaptation.

In my opinion, North & South is up there as one of the best of the best period dramas. First, the casting and acting was spot-on. Richard Armitage's portrayal of John Thornton was outstanding. No only is Armitage handsome, but his every gesture and facial expression gave further depth to his character. And Daniela Denby-Ashe was the perfect counterpart to him. In an interview,  she said she had been cast first, and that when Richard read for the part of Thornton, there was that magical spark between them and she just knew he was the one for the role.

In addition to the cast and acting, the screenplay was an excellent adaption. I really prefer its ending to Gaskell's. I also thought the beautiful soundtrack did a wonderful job at helping tell the story and convey the emotion portrayed in each scene.

Finally, the train station scene.... Of all the scenes in period drama, I think that last scene of North & South is the most romantic and satisfying of all. Although Margaret is speaking one thing with her words, her body language is conveying something completely different and Thornton is reading her loud and clear. With the camera shooting the scene up close, we see every nuance of expression in Thornton's countenance—which tells a story all its own. And that kiss—. Oh, that kiss....

What are the qualities you love about Thornton that has made you select him for a character in your work -- what makes him compelling or admirable?

I love that Thornton is a man who feels deeply. And although his exterior can be hard as nails, he's really quite tender hearted—a paradox of sorts. You have to get up close to see who he really is.

In many ways, I see him as a representation of a fundamental paradox of the war. Soldiers were forced to put on a steely exterior, be brave and charge the enemy. But inwardly they were fragile humans, most of whom only wanted to make it home to their families and resume their lives.

Thornton is also loyal and hard-working, excellent character traits for a soldier. But probably the biggest reason I chose him is that we love him!

Can you give us any hints about how John Thornton makes his appearance in the 20th century in your novel?

Thornton plays a small, but important role in Darcy's Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes. He serves as a kind of a mirror for Darcy.

When Darcy looks at Thornton, in many ways he sees himself. Both men not only embody the previously mentioned character traits, but both share personality traits as well. Both are brooding introverts, intelligent, and heartbroken over a woman. The one thing that separates them is station. Something Darcy was born with, but something Thornton can never attain, no matter how hard he works or how virtuous his character.

Putting Thornton beside Darcy serves to illustrate just how similar, yet how far apart they really are. It forces Darcy to reexamine who he really is, his standing in society, and his significance.

In addition, their relationship serves to illustrate an important shift in British culture that began in the trenches of WW1. For the first time in history, men of rank and station were forced to work (fight) side by side with those beneath them. Working towards a common goal in life-and-death situations gave each group an appreciation for the other, and they learned that they weren't as different as previously perceived. This realization marked the beginning of the end of the class system in Britain.

I understand "Darcy's Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes" has a sequel coming in January. Does Thornton have a role in it as well?

Indeed he does! In Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, once again, Thornton's role is not a large one, but an important one. This time, Thornton is a hero.

Margaret Hale also makes an appearance and readers will see a glimpse of them as a couple.

A glimpse is all we get?

Well, yes. —for now. But stay tuned. I have plans to give John and Margaret their own Great War Romance. In Thornton's Hope, readers will be whisked away to the battlefields of France where our dear couple will fight for their love amidst the ravages of war.

Readers who would like to be notified about Thornton's Hope and other Great War Romances can sign up for my newsletter at

Any parting thoughts you'd like to add?

Yes. I never dreamed that my research of WW1 would have such a profound impact on me. The WW2 generation is often referred to as “The Greatest Generation,” but I'm not so sure I agree.

Many of the young men who fought in the trenches of France and Belgium had never travelled more than a hundred miles from home. Automobiles were a novelty, and telephones were a relatively new invention.

The boys were shipped across the Channel and were greeted with a baptism of fire—machine-guns and artillery that could inflict horrifying wounds with dizzying speed. Trenches were swarming with rats and lice, mud was often up to their knees, and the pounding of artillery shelling was relentless and at times deafening. And then there were the ever-present sights, sounds, and smells of death. Everyone lost friends and comrades.

And yet... the men remained cheerful, shared what little they had, and everyone did something for the war effort. All those little acts of kindness added up and made a big difference. It challenges me to do likewise.

In 2017, America will commemorate its hundredth anniversary of participation in WW1. I would just challenge readers to pay attention. Appreciate the sacrifices our great-grandfathers made—men like John Thornton and Fitzwilliam Darcy who were willing to give of themselves and sacrifice for others so that we could be free.

-- Thank you, Trudy, for hosting Darcy's Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes on More than Thornton!

Ginger Monette

The teacher always learns the most. And in homeschooling her children, Ginger Monette learned all the history she missed in school. Now she's hooked—on writing and World War I.
When not writing, Ginger enjoys dancing on the treadmill, watching period dramas, public speaking, and reading—a full-length novel every Sunday afternoon.
Her WW1 flash fiction piece, "Flanders Field of Grey," won Charlotte Mecklenburg Library's 2015 Picture This grand prize.
Ginger lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she happily resides with her husband, three teenagers, and two loyal dogs.

Don't forget to check out the wonderful reviews of Darcy's Hope at Amazon.







Gaskell girls and the disastrous results of rejecting Mr. Right

It's perfectly natural to expect proud, independent heroines to be vehemently resolute in their judgements. After all, the girls who slide into compliance with traditional expectations and customs would hardly make an exciting story. But boy do Gaskell's girls create a ton of trouble for themselves when they pour on the stubborn resistance to the magnetic pull of Mr. Destiny! 

I'm finding many parallels between Margaret Hale and Mary Barton, but what's most striking to me is how similarly they must struggle to find a way to make restitution for a monumental mistake: rejecting the best offer of marriage they'll ever receive. 

The look you get when you've just rejected the violently passionate Mr Thornton!

The look you get when you've just rejected the violently passionate Mr Thornton!

Both Mary and Margaret have predetermined to hold themselves superior to the men who desperately want to marry them. They both receive wildly passionate speeches of undying love. (I just love the sweet and fervent proposal in Mary Barton!) And each of these girls find themselves powerfully shaken by the intense interaction. Their hearts are jostled open by the honesty and fervency of the devotion expressed by the amazing specimen of a man they just turned down.

Of course, both these hard-headed ladies have aha moments about the hero and their own feelings -- but they're just too dang late! The aftermath of each of these feisty decisions isn't pretty.

So what do you get for turning down the best man in town? 

  • Guilt, with the distinct knowledge of how much pain you've caused
  • Remorse, with the accumalating recognition of what kind of man you dismissed
  • An earful from your future mother-in-law
The wrath of Mrs. Thornton unleashed on Margaret. 

The wrath of Mrs. Thornton unleashed on Margaret. 

  • Avoidance by The Rejected One
  • The agony of not being to tell him you've changed your mind

It's the last reason -- being unable to clearly communicate with the hero -- that really caught my attention as I read Mary Barton. For those of you who have trouble understanding Margaret Hale or who find it hard to forgive her for allowing John to suffer so long, Gaskell spells out the repressive position the heroine endures much more clearly in Mary Barton:

Maidenly modesty ... seemed to oppose every plan she could think of, for showing Jem how much she repented her decision against him, and how dearly she had now discovered that she loved him. She came to the unusual wisdom of resolving to do nothing, but strive to be patient, and improve circumstances as they might turn up ... She had been very wrong, but now she would endeavor to do right, and have womanly patience, until he saw her changed and repentant mind in natural actions.

This explains Margaret perfectly! We see her doing exactly this -- humbly trying to show her repentance by her demeanor in every interaction with Thornton. 

Margaret's maidenly meekness.

Margaret's maidenly meekness.

But her tongue is tied as a woman of that era. A good Victorian girl could not approach a man to explain herself. She is forced by propriety to wait until the man initiates any further communication concerning the subject. How torturous it must have be for these passionate and bold heroines to repress the expression of their thoughts and feelings!

And, of course, in Margaret's situation the complications in communicating seem to accumulate with Frederick's ill-fated arrival in Milton. It's clear that Margaret suffers from this constant repression and inability to explain herself as a woman:

Oh! thought she, 'I wish I were a man, that I could go and force him to express his disapprobation, and tell him honestly that I knew I deserved it.' (Chapter 37)

The suffering lasts two years for Margaret. Two years of misunderstanding and the repression of deep-held emotions because the moral culture of the day does not allow her to express herself. And two years that Thornton must also suffer in believing she doesn't care for him.

For Mary Barton, the suffering is loaded with imminent danger, but only endures for a short span of time. Her beloved almost loses his life because of her rejection!

Ah, but love prevails in the end. Happy endings are hard-wrought in Gaskell's tales. And both of Mary and Margaret play an active and unconventional role in "saving" their respective Mr. Right. After all the heartache they have caused, these girls are able to make full restitution for their catastrophic mistake.

And tell me, who wouldn't suffer two years, three years, or even ten to earn Mr. Thornton?! He truly is -- in so many ways -- Mr. Right.


Should Gaskell's 'Mary Barton' be made into film?

Photo by Mike Hogan/BBC

Photo by Mike Hogan/BBC

According to IMDb, the BBC already adapted Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel -- way back in 1964! Made into 4 episodes, the film is believed to be lost. (How do films get lost?) 

Four years ago, The Guardian announced that the BBC had plans to adapt Mary Barton, quoting Heidi Thomas (creator and writer of Call the Midwife) as saying she was eager to turn the novel into film. See the full article here.

There's certainly a lot of material in Mary Barton similar in nature to North and South:

Dirty, smokey old Milton   √

Struggle between masters and workers  √

Proud female protagonist who shuns the best catch of the town  √

Hard-working, devoted hero who must wait for idiot woman to come around √

An impressive tally of deaths √

Problematic father  √

If you thought North and South was dark and dreary, Mary Barton will take you even further into the stark lives of the working class.

Higgins and the working class in the BBC's 'North and South.'

Higgins and the working class in the BBC's 'North and South.'


The drama level rises several notches above North and South; with violence, tragedy, and perilous situations all vying to excite the reader's emotions.

Mary Barton definitely has the potential to make great screen drama. I hope the BBC picks up this apparently shelved project someday. I would love to watch another Gaskell story unfold on film.

Now that I've piqued your interest in the novel, I hope you'll be intrigued enough to come join me in a group read! For the next 6 weeks, I'll be hosting a group read of Mary Barton at Goodreads. Anyone is welcome to join us here.

And just to make sure you understand...

...there is no John Thornton in this story. He does not make an appearance as one of the evil mill masters.

But I hope you'll try reading Mary Barton anyway. Hints of Thornton's world abound.




Have you seen Wives and Daughters?

Last weekend I indulged in a rare spree of binge-watching. In the course of a few days, I watched the BBC's four-hour adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters.

Alright, so my definition of binge-watching may not be typical. But I don't usually watch much of anything. No TV shows -- none. I see an occasional movie. Perhaps now you will better appreciate the distinguishing honor I gave Wives and Daughters by taking the time to watch this mini-series for the second time (or is it the third? I'm not sure!).

The setting and pace of this story is much like Austen. But the underlying themes animating it are all Gaskell's own: the inevitable march of progress, the sacred importance of individuality, the value and strength of women; the emptiness of wealth, rank, and display; and the great impediment constructed between human beings by class divisions.

I love how Molly Gibson is drawn into a complicated web of relationships at every level of society. And the entire plot is set in motion by a rather random event--her father's interception of a love letter sent by an infatuated admirer.

As usual, the cast of characters is played by a host of well-loved British actors. If you haven't yet seen this sweet story, then maybe some name-dropping will entice you:

How many of these names do you already know?! It's just amazing--the talent packed in this piece!

How many of these names do you already know?! It's just amazing--the talent packed in this piece!

And now I'll get to the most important part of this blog post --

                  Have you read the book YET?

I love this book almost as much as North and South. I struggle at times in trying to decide which of these novels should be known as her masterpiece. Do you understand what that means, coming from me?! 

If you love classic Victorian literature, if you love Austen or Gaskell, if you love character-driven books, then please don't pass by this book. It is Gaskell's last work, the cumulation of her writing and story-telling skills -- and it shows. It's a much more polished work than North and South. 

There's only one drawback to the book: it has no ending. Gaskell died very suddenly before it was finished. Fortunately, however, she was within close sight of the ending. The reader knows that the pieces will all fall in place, they are merely deprived of knowing exactly how the author would have played her final hand. 

The mini-series does a wonderful job of creating an ending that works for the drama of film. The proposal scene is one I have watched over and over again. I can't think of a proposal scene I love more in any other film. (Do you have a favorite accepted-proposal scene?)

I have only one complaint concerning the film version of Wives and Daughters. And it's a complaint I must direct at the screenplay writer, Andrew Davies: a handhold cannot replace a kiss in a final scene! There, I said it. And let me know if you feel the same. After investing four hours of our time in a romantic story, we viewers deserve a kiss!

This -- instead of a kiss!

This -- instead of a kiss!

At least North and South delivers on that score!  

Would Gaskell have given us a kiss? Ah, we'll never know....

 Up Next -- Get ready to join me as I lead a Mary Barton group read soon! Grab a free ebook copy of Gaskell's first novel and start reading.




Did Gaskell rush the ending of North & South?


When a story keeps lovers apart until the final few pages, it can be hard for readers to feel satisfied. Many of us wanted to see more--much more. But was the story complete up to those last few written words?

I wrote about Gaskell's ending at West of Milton exactly three years ago. (Lori's blog has some wonderful discussions. Check them out!) This week I'll be camping in northern California, so I'm cheating by posting an old piece. I hope it will be new to many of you!


Rushed or Merely Abrupt?

Have you ever read comments about North and South that refer to Gaskell’s rushed ending? The subject of the story’s rapid conclusion regularly appears in reviews of the book and in other discussions.

I’ve been noting these kinds of comments for some time and have been mulling over what it is that people are really trying to say about Elizabeth Gaskell’s work when they mention her ending. Too often, I believe, the assumption is that Dickens’ editorial deadlines adversely affected Gaskell’s ability to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion.

There is truth in the matter of her being initially rushed, however, I think a distinction ought to be made between whether the plot or character development of Gaskell’s story was permanently damaged or if the story is developed well but ends somewhat abruptly. The difference, I believe, is in the reader’s interpretation of the story itself.

There’s no real debate as to whether or not her ending is abrupt. It sure is. We spend all that time and anguish waiting for our lovers to come together. And when they finally kiss, that’s it – story’s over. No long discussions over past regrets, no letting us see how Hannah reacts, not even a mention of Fred, who caused more trouble than we could have ever first conceived. Many of Georgette Heyer’s famed Regency romance novels end exactly in this same manner, leaving the reader to divine how everything will work out once the lovers are clearly set upon a short path to matrimony.

Of course we are left wanting more. There’s so much more that could be told! But I’m satisfied that the story leading to this moment is complete. In fact, one could even argue that Gaskell dwelled on Margaret’s time in London and Helstone – apart from Thornton – a little too long. What elements of the story do some readers suppose are rushed? Does Margaret need more time to convince herself that the Milton manufacturer has a heart? I don’t see her keeping track of Thornton’s progress in the realm of master-worker relations or wishing he were kinder and more compassionate. She knows he has a heart and has full faith in his character. Does Gaskell need to bring out more how much Thornton has changed? The conversation during the London dinner party elaborates upon how much Thornton’s ideals have evolved since he began working with Higgins.

I think it’s possible that those who label Gaskell’s novel as rushed may be overlooking some pertinent and lesser-known facts concerning the final edition of North and South. Everyone seems to know that Gaskell was rushed to finish her work, however not everyone seems to know the details involved.


Leave your comments at either site. Lori and I both love to talk about North and South!

"Northern Rain" -- a new N&S variation by Nicole Clarkston

I'm always excited to see more people fall in love with North and South and John Thornton! Today, I'm pleased to introduce my readers to someone who has just recently published her second N&S variation: author Nicole Clarkston. 


But before you dash off to purchase it! -- find out a little more about Nicole's thoughts about Gaskell's story in my brief interview with her:


When did you fall in love with N&S?

I found it on Netflix in 2011, and at first I confused it with the Civil War drama by the same name. I was skeptical because the descriptions did the miniseries a terrible disservice, but I had watched Pride and Prejudice enough for one week, so I gave it a go. I had decided to rip up my carpets and refinish my wood floors while my husband was out of town for a week. Since my kids were at that time aged 3-6, I did most of my work at night, with them sleeping in a tent in the yard away from the fumes.

To keep me awake, I dragged my laptop, streaming the movie, around the house as I hand-finished my floors. North & South had me hooked within minutes, and I watched it more times than I could count in that week! I would be embarrassed to confess how many times I re-watched The Kiss. I even took a break from my floor sanding to drive all the way across Portland to get my hands on the only book on the shelf in the whole city. As always, the movie, while excellent, cannot hold a candle to the book. The cover is about to fall off, and my favorite passages have permanent bookmarks stuck in them, but Elizabeth Gaskell’s prose never fails to delight. The story is everything raw and authentic; a picture of immortal romance in the midst of regular human struggles.

As an aside and a compliment to you, Trudy, I must say that very soon after reading North & South, I found In Consequence and A Heart For Milton. I truly enjoyed both. It salved my poor angst-ridden obsession to see poor John and Margaret find the courage to trust in one another a little earlier. Thank you for leading the way! 

You're welcome, it was my pleasure and intention to give readers pages upon pages of what Gaskell had denied us until the very end: John's trembling joy in finding love. John Thornton is such an amazing character, repressing his passion for Margaret through the events of two years and several hundred pages (or almost four hours of film time). Tell me, do you envision Richard Armitage as your John Thornton?

It would be impossible not to! I have never seen another actor who can so masterfully relay such deep emotions with nothing more than a single movement of his eye or a flinch of his cheek. Wow, absolutely breathtaking performance! It is true that I saw the miniseries first, so my view was somewhat prejudiced, but he perfectly presents the reserved man of mild expression and torrential emotion. He truly captured the essence of Thornton the titan, while tastefully portraying the vulnerabilities inherent to his character.

The scene where she is serving him tea was just priceless. The awkward hope in his eyes, desperate to prove himself worthy of her approval, is matched only by the growing passion that takes him completely by surprise. I absolutely love the double take that Richard does when Daniella first walks into her father’s study, and he is properly introduced to her. I envision Gaskell’s first meeting in the book starting off something like that.

What do you love about Gaskell's story?

It is so rich, it would be difficult to distill my response to a few sentences. We all love the pie-in-the-sky romances, but the world is not like that. This is how true love plays out; the exquisite revealing itself to us right in the middle of the prosaic. Another thing I adore is Thornton’s sacrificial love for Margaret. He is willing to put his own honor on the line for a woman he “knows” will never return his affections. He loves her despite her unloveliness, and somehow manages to see perfection while not being blinded to her faults. Gaskell had very strong notions of honor, and they shine through brilliantly. It is painful yet delicious how both eventually come to the defense of the other; neither expecting reciprocation. They simply do so because it is right, and their faithfulness is rewarded in the end.

You've written a Pride & Prejudice variation as well. What have you found to be similar or especially different in writing N&S stories?

As a reader, I am thoroughly charmed by tasteful humor in a love story. So much of life works better if we can laugh at ourselves. As a writer, I hope to capture a little of that as well. With Pride and Prejudice, lightness comes so easily, and I think that is one reason we can point to for the dominance of P&P variations. Elizabeth “dearly loves to laugh” and some of Austen’s characters are her own tongue-in-cheek impressions of other people whom she found amusing. The setting in rural England is gentle, and in the end, our dear couple goes to live in a castle of sorts. We are free to imagine them living out their days in almost perfect harmony.

Nicole's P&P variation.

Nicole's P&P variation.


In North & South, we do not have those luxuries. Gaskell immerses the reader deep into hardship and suffering. Thornton lives and breathes it every day, and Margaret is almost a lifeline to everything he has long been denied, but believes exists somewhere in the world. Gaskell speaks of his sense of humor and how guileless he was in everything he enjoyed, but those moments are sparing. We do not see Margaret really laughing at all, so overcome is she by the harshness of her surroundings. The last glimpse we have of the couple is of a gentle tease, a tender moment, and then we drop the book wondering “What now?”

Even at the end of the story, Gaskell does not tie everything up in a neat little bow for us, setting the world perfectly to rights and ensuring that our dear couple will never face hardship. In fact, we are practically assured that they will. They go back to live and work among squalor, and if we know our couple well, they will feel burdened to do something about it. The confidence that we do have is that they will no longer struggle alone. In that, I believe Gaskell’s tale is so much more attainable. The union of a co-laborer and a partner is the essence of an equal marriage. Perhaps one might say that North & South is the more mature love story of the two, being written by a wife and mother who was intimately acquainted with loss, as opposed to the hopeful, whimsical tale of a woman who never married. (And here I put up my umbrella to fend of the flying vegetables from the audience.)

Tell us a bit about you new variation. What is the premise?

There are so many points in the original where I personally was screaming at one or the other of them to say something! One of the most painful was in the aftermath of the train station debacle. Thornton thinks Margaret has a lover and is willing to lie to conceal her disgrace, and Margaret thinks (accurately) that she has lost whatever respect Thornton ever had for her. She is finally starting to regret that.

In Northern Rain, we see Margaret feeling a little sorry for Thornton after she witnesses him in a moment of genuine, unguarded vulnerability. It gives her the courage to try, in some measure, to explain herself. She is still unwilling to betray Frederick, but she is desperate to improve Thornton’s opinion of her. As they slowly build something of a working friendship, Thornton’s continued closeness to the family at a time when, in the original, he had begun to pull away, reveals Mr Hale’s failing health to him. How might matters have changed for all if Thornton made some intervention? During this time, however, Thornton was facing hardships of his own. At a time when he most wants propose again and is most sure of his reception, he truly has no business offering marriage to anyone. Poor Thornton, it is so delightful to torment him!


I have to agree, tormenting Thornton is a delicious pleasure! Thanks to Nicole for giving us some great insights into her perspective of North and South.


Author Bio:

Nicole Clarkston is the pen name of a very bashful writer who will not allow any of her family or friends to read what she writes. She grew up in Idaho on horseback, and if she could have figured out how to read a book at the same time, she would have. She initially pursued a degree in foreign languages and education, and then lost patience with it, switched her major, and changed schools. She now resides in Oregon with her husband of 15 years, 3 homeschooled kids, and a very worthless degree in Poultry Science (don't ask).

Nicole discovered Jane Austen rather by guilt in her early thirties- how does any book worm really live that long without a little P&P? She has never looked back. A year or so later, during a major house renovation project (undertaken when her husband unsuspectingly left town for a few days) she discovered Elizabeth Gaskell and fell completely in love. Nicole's books are her pitiful homage to two authors who have so deeply inspired her.



Goodreads Blog

The Powerful Intimacy of a Name

It's easy to forget the formalities of earlier eras in our increasingly casual American culture. The rules of civility were far more rigid in Victorian times, so it's fascinating to study Elizabeth Gaskell's use of first names and surnames to indicate formality, familiarity, and feeling in North and South.

The first word of the book is "Edith!" and Gaskell begins by throwing the reader into the midst of a private scene between two young cousins on the cusp of womanhood. The familiarity between Margaret and Edith is drawn to highlight their differing stations and characters as well as to indicate their close relationship. Edith and Margaret are family -- practically sisters, considering the amount of time they've lived together in the Harley Street house over the past nine years.

Brothers and sisters, of course, refer to and address their siblings by their first names. Mrs. Hale speaks of Aunt Shaw as "Anna." Fanny explains who Mr. Hale is to a dinner guest by saying, "My brother John goes to him twice a week..." And in a rare display of casual familiarity, John calls his sister "Fan" as he chides her for always having some kind of ailment.

The foundation for all traditional family relations is marriage, and the relationship between husband and wife is unique. A Victorian wife would customarily speak of her husband in a formal manner in front of others. The use of his first name would be a private matter between them. We get a peek of the sweet intimacy between Margaret's parents when Mrs. Hale rushes into her husband's arms saying,"Oh! Richard, Richard, you should have told me sooner!"on the day Margaret has broken the news of her father's decision. Mr. Hale, in turn, uses his wife's first name, Maria, in moments of emotional anguish--when he's feeling terribly guilty about her suffering. 

Margaret, as the young unmarried heroine of the story, is almost always referred to and directly addressed by her first name. It's especially interesting to note the exchange between Margaret and a male friend of the family: Mr. Henry Lennox. From the very first chapter, we see that while Henry is free to speak to Margaret by her first name, when Margaret thinks or refers to him it is always as "Mr. Lennox." Edith, however, as Henry's sister-in-law, is free to addresses him by his first name, which she does several times in the concluding chapters. (Side note: Gaskell never has Margaret directly address Henry by his name at all -- either with "Mr. Lennox" or "Henry" -- throughout the entire book.)

The BBC adaptation brilliantly creates a distinction of familiarity between Margaret and Henry by having Margaret call Henry by his first name. In the scene at the Great Exhibition, just after John and Margaret have separated themselves from the crowd to argue about how well they assume to know each other, Henry arrives on the spot. Margaret is uncomfortably forced to provide some kind of introduction:

 Henry ... do you know Mr. Thornton?

The effect of this utterance is staggering on John Thornton. The seething look of jealousy John gives Henry can hardly be disguised. There's no doubt that John has bitterly noted that while the strange gentleman from London has the honor of being called by his first name, he remains a more distant "Mr. Thornton" to Margaret. The distinction is acute, and the way he glares at the competition throughout their exchange is categorically lethal.

The BBC's John Thornton stares down Henry Lennox.

The BBC's John Thornton stares down Henry Lennox.

Poor John always seems relegated to the status of an outsider in many respects: he is the foreign northerner; he is a tradesman--a notch below a gentleman's family; he is the unrefined man who comes to Mr. Hale to continue the education he was forced to abandon; he is the busy workingman who doesn't have the time for leisure or social finesse. He feels these distinctions that separate him from Margaret and make him feel unworthy of her. His longing to be a part of her inner circle and his envy toward those who are in it is palpable throughout the book. To her, he suspects, he will always be "Mr. Thornton." 

Because he has no close relationship with her, he refers to her as "Miss Hale" with his mother, and in addressing Margaret herself. Even when he comes to declare his love for her the day after the riot--even in the heat of passion of revealing his feelings--he still controls himself enough to address her as "Miss Hale."

Although the bursting longing to have a special bond with her is contained outwardly in the formalities required of the time, his private thoughts and exclamations are thronged with her first name:

Oh, my Margaret - my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to me! Dead - cold as you lie there, you are the only woman I ever loved! Oh, Margaret - Margaret!

and later:

Oh! Margaret, could you not have loved me? I am but uncouth and hard, but I would never have led you into any falsehood for me.

The relationship between Thornton and Margaret is strained from the very outset. Margaret's initial judgmental assumptions about his class and position keep her haughtily distanced from him, all while he strives to make himself understood. After she finally wakens to appreciate his true character, the strain between them takes a new turn with the compounded misunderstandings concerning Frederick and her lie.

When Margaret moves to London, the division between them remains unresolved. Both have resigned themselves to the assumption that they will live their lives alone. When Mr. Thornton comes to dinner in London, the tension of fervent attraction between them is renewed, although they both try hard to hide their tumultuous feelings.  Margaret cannot help blushing in his presence; Thornton cannot help but look to Margaret for a hint of approval.

The BBC's version of the tender final scene.

The BBC's version of the tender final scene.


How tremendous is the impact, then, of what takes place a few days later when these two silent sufferers finally find themselves alone together in Aunt Shaw's back drawing room. Both begin their conversation with all the awkwardness of formality as Margaret mentions Mr. Lennox, and Mr. Thornton interrupts to say something of his hardships. To which, Margaret stammeringly answers with her business proposal. 

Silence ensues for a moment while Margaret shuffles papers nervously until:

...her very heart-pulse was arrested by the tone in which Mr. Thornton spoke. His voice was hoarse, and trembling with tender passion, as he said: -

And thus, with the utterance of one word--her name--all formality between them is dropped; the atmosphere of the room entirely changes. He calls to her as an intimate equal, begging her to reply in kind. 

And she does. Not with his name, but with a very tender physical gesture--laying her face on his shoulder--which answers his unspoken question and puts an end to the tortuous separation between them forever.





A Conversation between Darcy and Thornton

The BBC's Mr. Thornton and Mr. Darcy

The BBC's Mr. Thornton and Mr. Darcy

The following dialogue was originally posted at C19 by the brilliantly witty "Red Queen" back in 2006, when the seismic waves of North and South's first impact on the period drama world were still reverberating. (For a brief history the C19 message board's glorious origins, see the Armitage Authors post here.) Special thanks to Clare, aka Red Queen, for permission to share this gem yet again with an ever-expanding cyber fandom. 

Fitzwilliam Darcy: “All right?”

John Thornton: “I’ve been better.”

FD: “Hmmm, I know that look. You’ve got woman trouble and I bet I know of just what kind. Don’t tell me. You met a girl with more than the full complement of opinions. You then spent several weeks trying to tell yourself you didn’t like her, in spite of the fact that you were thinking about her all the time and pretty much wanted to – er – marry her without delay. You popped over to share the glad tidings and, instead of being deeply sensible of the honour and sobbing into your shirt front with gratitude, she read you a lecture about your shortcomings and started eyeing the fire-irons.”

JT: “That’s exactly what happened – how did you know?”

FD: “Been there, done that, bought the cravat. There’s more. Having trodden her dainty feet all over your heart, I’ll bet the ranch she then made some crack about you being ungentlemanly.”

JT: “Oh yes – I got that off both barrels.”

FD: “Thought so. Me too. Classic ‘get-lost-you-lowlife’ tactic. I take it you exited stage right in a bigger hurry than you arrived?”

JT: “I did.”

FD: “And then your own family started getting on the case and, before you knew where you were, you’d got some funereal old bird giving you the yap about how your bride of choice was, in fact, Satan in petticoats.”

JT: “Yeah, my mother did have one or two things to say on the subject."

FD: “I had an aunt sticking her beak in. Did your girlfriend get a visit from the old crone?”

JT: “She certainly did.”

FD: “I knew it. And did the light of your life give the old dear a flea for her trouble?”

JT: “Yep. Big time.”

FD: “Your woman-of-choice and mine aren’t sisters by any chance are they? She’s got a load of sisters, I lose count ….”

JT: “Only if her father’s a deceased ex-clergyman. Shame he’s deceased - he was a nice old boy, I really liked him.”

FD: “Not sisters then. My father-in-law is still among us. He’s a good bloke as it goes, but the mother …. don’t get me started.”

JT: “Nightmare?”

FD: “The full ticket to dreadful. All I can say is thank God there are a lot of miles and bad roads between Derbyshire and Hertfordshire. What’s your girlfriend’s old lady like?”

JT: “Dead.”

FD: “Result. How’d you manage that?”

JT: “I polluted the local climate with my factory and it aggravated her consumption. Cost me a fortune in fruit baskets before she finally shuffled off though. Never bought so many flippin’ grapes.”

FD: “So, to recap: you had the offer of your heart and mattress callously given the full frosty. I take it you’ve spent the time since being thoroughly miserable and reforming your character?”

JT: “Check on both counts. If you knew how much stew I’ve had to eat in the company of oiks just to impress her.”

FD: “I know the drill. I had to cosy up to my tenants and bribe my housekeeper to spread the word. Believe me, it’ll be worth it in the end - women lap all that stuff up. What you need now is some family crisis that you can sort out on the QT, so you can look heroic but modest with it. I had a stroke of luck in that department. The beloved’s silly cow sister ran off with a total scumbag. I strong-armed the scumbag into doing the decent thing. Cost me a packet but the dream date started to look more favourably on the old suit so it was worth every penny.”

JT: “I’m already sorted on that one thanks. There was some trouble with this girl’s brother. Never met him but he sounds like a bit of a numpty to be honest. Anyway, he landed her with a possible court appearance which made her lip wobble big time. Couldn’t have that, so I put a stop to it.”

FD: “What did she say to that?”

JT: “Not much, although she has stopped lecturing me about my moral duty every time I enter a room, so that’s a step up. I’m going to see her later this morning actually. She wants to lend me 18 grand.”

FD: “18 grand eh? Well, it’s none of my business mate, but I think you might be in there.”

JT: “I dunno. I saw her at dinner last night and she wasn’t very chatty. Looked a bit pink though.”

FD: “Well, play it by ear. See how she is this a.m. Have you got some romantic gesture up your sleeve just in case the moment presents?”

JT: “It’s not up my sleeve, it’s in my waistcoat pocket. I’ve got some roses in there that come from her hometown. She’s completely sentimental about the place.”

FD: “Impressive. If she doesn’t want to snuggle up after that I think you’ll just have to cut your losses.”

JT: “Oh well, better get going – don’t want to be late. Just one thing though …. do you think there’s any truth in the saying that if you want to know what your wife will be like in 20 years, just look at her mother?”

[Long, long pause.]

FD: “Let’s hope, for your sake and mine, that there isn’t.”

Marrying for love in North & South

Elizabeth Gaskell begins her novel with one wedding and ends it with the imminent prospect of another. In the opening pages, eighteen year-old Margaret Hale is caught up in the flurry of preparations for Edith's forthcoming wedding. And by the end of chapter two, Gaskell has depicted the general outcome of two marriages (the Shaws and the Hales). Clearly, Gaskell has something to say on the subject of choosing a life match. And well she should, since her heroine has arrived at the threshold of the marriage mart and will need to navigate her way through two unexpected proposals and the possibility of spinsterhood.

Should one marry for money or love? This appears to be the rather stark choice presented to every Victorian girl. Gaskell gives us a glimpse into the result of both choices by comparing two sisters. 

Margaret's Aunt Shaw married for money. She chose to marry a man she didn't love who was much older. She has every material comfort and no financial woes.  Aunt Shaw romanticizes the concept of marrying for love and insists that Edith marry for love. Regularly complaining of the age disparity in her marriage of convenience, Anna Shaw imagines that her sister must be happy:

'Married for love, what can dearest Maria have to wish for in this world?' Mrs. Hale, if she spoke truth, might have answered with a ready-made list, ' a silver-gray glacé silk, a white chip bonnet, oh! dozens of things...."
the BBC's Maria and Richard Hale

the BBC's Maria and Richard Hale

Mrs. Hale married for love, but has found it difficult to be happy with the modest income and somewhat isolated life of a country parson's wife. She complains that her husband hasn't risen to a more profitable and socially satisfying position. 

Gaskell doesn't present a clear winner out of either of these two marriages. Is there any hope that her protagonist, Margaret Hale, will find some kind of happily-ever-after? How should she choose a life partner?

The answer may lie in looking a little closer at what "marrying for love" may mean in different cases.

Mr Hale and his wife may have been in love, but they don't seem well suited to each other on an intellectual level. Gaskell points out that early on in their marriage, Mr Hale wanted to spend time reading aloud to his wife but that she was annoyed with it. Thus, he began to retreat to his study and read alone. 

So, in finding a good match, it's best to match both hearts and minds. It's important to find someone who engages your mind and enjoys similar pursuits or you may find your marital bond weakening instead of strengthening.

Henry Lennox gets a "no" from Margaret.

Henry Lennox gets a "no" from Margaret.

Margaret's rejection of Henry Lennox tells us much about what she expects, consciously or unconsciously, from marriage. When Henry asks if he may still hope that she may someday accept him as a lover, she is "silent for a minute or two, trying to discover the truth as it was in her own heart." Ultimately, she couldn't say "yes" when her heart said "no." She clearly intends to marry for love. Henry is a good catch for her, according to the prevalent assumptions of what a girl should aim for, yet she wasn't at all tempted to accept. 

Marriage isn't even on Margaret's mind at the time Henry proposes. She doesn't seem to be worried about who or when she'll marry at all. She's just happy to return to her home in Helstone. Securing a comfortable position as someone's wife isn't on her current agenda.

Someone else in this story also doesn't appear to be thinking about finding a spouse: John Thornton. He hasn't been making any plans or showing any interest in the ladies that his mother says are pursuing him. 

What are John's expectations of marriage? There's no indication that he had planned on marrying at all. He has been too occupied with his work. 

What was the model of marriage his parents left for him? We can only surmise that Hannah Thornton may have loved her husband, however much pain his suicide caused her. She wears black, the color of mourning, years after first becoming a widow. She has kept with pride the Dutch damask napkins with her husband's initials, given as a wedding present, through all the years of hardship. She never speaks unkindly of him or seems to blame him with bitterness.

If it's possible, then, that Thornton recalls his parents' marriage as one based on real affection, then it's certain that Fanny was too young to remember anything of her mother's marriage at all. Fanny doesn't appear to have any other aim than to marry well according to social status and wealth. She, like Aunt Shaw, chooses to marry a rich, older man.

It's fascinating to watch how Margaret and John  discover that they have found someone that they want to marry -- someone who engages their heart and their mind -- when marriage had been the furthest thing from their minds! 

John Thornton also gets a "no."

John Thornton also gets a "no."

It's a rocky road to love. Margaret is compelled to say "no" to the second offer of love she receives because she isn't aware that she is falling in love with the Milton master yet. Too much confusion. 

And by the end of the novel, when Margaret tells Edith she will never marry, the reader knows it's because she will not compromise on marriage. She will marry for love, or not at all. And she believes that the door to marital bliss has been closed forever for her.

And that mistake is all cleared up in the last two pages....